Risk of Ruin and Leaps of Faith

When we play games, whether virtual or physical, it’s common to have an ongoing calculation of our ability to inflict damage on others and their ability to do the same to us. At every step, if we’re experienced, we are projecting future possibilities, deciding on defensive/offensive strategies, and acting with good-but-not-perfect information. In many common games, personal victory is associated with the elimination or “death” of our enemies. We have exhausted their resources and reign victorious.

There are many assumptions that are taken for granted in this sort of framework that differ from daily living, namely:

  1. A potentially large but finite/calculable set of possible outcomes
  2. Logic and rules that are intentionally designed by the creators, then agreed upon by the players implicitly or explicitly
  3. Levels of difficulty that can be reasonably anticipated and follow a predefined path
  4. Timing and whether or not to participate can be controlled by the players
  5. Survival (often at others’ expense) is the goal
  6. The chances of survival/winning are able to be calculated
  7. The definition of winning is clear
  8. When certain conditions are met, all players can agree that the game has ended

What about “regular life?”

  1. Effectively infinite amount of possible outcomes
  2. Lack of universal agreement on the “rules”
  3. Level of difficulty non-linear and unable to be anticipated
  4. Being born and years of birth and death are typically unable to be consciously controlled
  5. Survival is a laudable goal, but we can go beyond mere surviving to thriving, or we can lay down our life for a larger cause (for example to save others), and that is not viewed as “losing.” Survival at others’ expense produces severe guilt in all but the most narcissistic of individuals. The vast majority of people are not out to get us.
  6. Chances of survival overall and even for specific conditions are best guesses, and exceptions to estimates occur with such regularity that we cannot fully anticipate lifespan. This is not to say that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves; ongoing quality of life is a huge factor in old age and can be controlled to some extent by decisions we make in youth and early/middle adulthood.
  7. The definition of a life well-lived (“winning”) is not universally agreed.
  8. The end of life (“end of the game”) is not universally agreed; dying is a process and death is not always as final as we think. People who are clinically dead can return, people in comas with minimal brain activity can regain function, and people who are agreed by all to be dead still go through other physical changes and biological processes between declaration of death and how/where the body is ultimately laid to rest.

In short, the old adage “life is messy” is more true than ever. The problems come when we try to apply the rules of a game to situations where they do not apply. We can become callous to our impact on other living beings if we treat everything in life as a calculation devoid of emotion. We can cause ourselves great misery if we overestimate our level of control of external events/people, or our ability to truly anticipate the future. Hint: it’s basically none in the vast majority of circumstances. So what’s a human to do?

First, we can control our own actions, habits, and priorities. Here’s something good we can translate from games: we choose what we optimize for! If we know what we want, we can take the actions to get there, which become habits, which are guided by our priorities. The answer to how to spend our time and the calculation of what to say no to becomes much clearer when we know where we’re going and what we value.

Second, we can review our personal approach to risk. It seems like it might be nice to be able to say things like, “Going after this promotion has the potential of +2 happiness, but -5 damage to my pride if I don’t receive it, so since my pride is already hurting, I won’t attempt it.” This type of thinking assumes that we have calculable maximum potential happiness and potential ruin, and that the way we anticipate the situation is how it will actually feel during and after it happens. (The promotion is just an easy example and not a personal one for me; substitute any other difficult situation for you that causes fear.) I’ve lived enough life to know that there is happiness beyond what we think is possible, and darkness beyond what we thought we could feel. I’ve also achieved enough of my goals to know that there are many potential outcomes: sometimes it feels amazing or just like we expect, other times we realize that, once we have it, it’s not what we truly wanted, and finally there are cases where the achievement is so hard-won that we feel it wasn’t worth the sacrifice. We may have done better to let life flow a bit more naturally in those cases.

The things in life that are truly worthwhile can sometimes involve risking more than we think we can bear: going after the person, the job, the difficult goal, kicking the bad habit, starting the business, opening one’s heart to another, standing up for ourselves, undertaking the cross-country move. This is not license to risk everything with no thought to the impact to ourselves and others; however, many people go through life spending so much time avoiding potential pain that they end up regretting all the chances they never took.

We end up back at humility: we can make our best attempt, we can guide our choices with our goals and values, but ultimately, we cannot fully know the final outcome at the start. It’s worth asking ourselves over and over, “Are you sure?” I mean this as “You don’t have to believe 100% of the things you think; you can question your assumptions, then act” not “Paralyze yourself with indecision.” An attitude of playfulness can work wonders. If we take ourselves too seriously and think we have to get it right all/most the time to “win”, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. We’ve been wrong before and we’ll be wrong again. We’ve been right before and we’ll be right again. We learn, we grow, we change, and all that came before informs all that comes after.

Third, we can understand that separate processes exist for creative thinking and for evaluation of possibilities. If we remain stuck in “evaluation of possibilities” mode (as we would in a game), we may be closing ourselves off to new ideas that might break the mold of what we assumed was possible. We can think we know it all, when we are in fact blinding ourselves to anything that doesn’t fit our narrative. On the other hand, if we remain stuck in “creative thinking” mode, we may never get to a decision. The cumulative lack of personally initiated decisions can add up to a life determined purely by circumstance, or even determined by others who have undertaken decisions that impact us while we were daydreaming. Striking a balance between these 2 processes, known as convergent and divergent thinking, is important in life, business, and analytics. Convergent thinking relates to evaluation of ideas. Divergent thinking relates to generating ideas. We need both, but we are not capable of doing them at the same time. This is why it’s important to know which mode we’re in, and to ensure we include the opposite mode intentionally.

In closing, we are here, we are alive, we have nearly infinite possibilities, we are capable of choosing our focus, and on some level we’re along for the ride.

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